COVID-19: Risk Communication is Key

Umar Ibrahim, PhD, is the Chairman/Director of Health for Abubuwa Societal Development Initiative, Nigeria. In this post he discusses the importance of accurate and tailored risk communication in the context of COVID-19 management and control in Nigeria.

The outbreak of COVID-19 affects the global population in an unprecedented way. It affects both wealthy and poor countries – differently – causing them to struggle in its management. The situation demands trusted and effective risk communication mechanisms, targeting diverse audiences. Therefore, tailored and focused communication campaigns on the symptoms, basic hygiene and sanitation practice, among other risk management strategies, need to emerge from a trusted source in understandable language.

For example, information disseminated on social distancing in Nigeria, was broadly understood and widely accepted. This highlights the significance of effective health communication as an invaluable tool for COVID-19 prevention and control. Additionally, language barriers must be eliminated whenever health communication comes into the limelight. Lack of information in local languages, in some parts of the African region such as northern Nigeria, has left some sections of the population unaware of complex health issues. In this regard, understanding a message is central to its acceptance. As such, a radio jingle in Hausa language, the dialogue of the people in Bauchi State Nigeria, was aired to aid the understanding of COVID-19 prevention and control measures. 

Why is effective communication so important?

Using the best means of communicating health issues to the targeted communities raises their understanding and awareness levels. Targeted health communication needs to provide background and supportive information as well as improving public awareness on the emerging issues. Also, targeted communication keeps the population under focus informed on how to identify and report COVID-19 symptoms. Mixed experiences trail the COVID-19 prevention and control response in Nigeria, as a result of right and wrong information dissemination. These experiences should compel stakeholders to focus their attention on effective communication approaches that can help in understanding and acceptance of the disseminated messages, such as:

1. Audio/Visual:

A short video in combination with audio content or a simple video caption demonstrating practical COVID-19 preventive measures – or an audio clip explaining how basic hygiene is implemented. This will help in understanding the COVID-19 preventive techniques.

For example, this video on how to effectively wash hands is quick and easy to understand.

2. One-on-one campaigns:

Visiting residential quarters, business premises and other places of gatherings such as parks, markets, and garages among others, to meet people one-on-one, with clear messages on the COVID-19. Questions will also be entertained in such an approach. Those conducting the visits will need to wear appropriate protective clothing to ensure they do not contribute to the spread of disease.

3. Involvement of local champions:

There are certain people who are designated as local champions in every community. They become influential in their society by the virtue of their status, formally or informally. They are able to influence the decision of their community members. This type of people should be involved in delivering information on how to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

4. Evidence based information:

Targeted information should be built on fact, not fiction. The listeners may be laymen with no prior knowledge, in need of information on COVID-19 and as such could be anxious or emotional and ready to accept any information on their disposal. Therefore, any information to be given to them must be evidence based, and capable of promoting best practice.

5. Simple, clear and concise messages:

Complex issues should be presented using simple, clear, unambiguous and concise language, text or infographics. Doing that will make the message understandable within the intended context.

Good examples of infographic resources can be found here and here.

6: Targeted message:

The COVID-19 message should be customized in accordance to the targeted audience. For example, a message targeting young or inexperienced members of the community should be different from the ones targeting older or more experienced and knowledgeable members of the community. All members of the community should be able to understand what sources of information are to be trusted. Misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic can spreads across media outlets at a galloping speed. Fake news can confuse people on what actions to take, and on how to protect themselves and their families. Fake news may be developed due to the lack of clear, accurate, and accessible information on COVID-19 in a language and format understood by the audience.

For a more detailed breakdown on managing risk communication and misinformation, please see this resource from Social Science in Humanitarian Action.

Managing misinformation

To counter the effect of misinformation on COVID-19, the following should be considered;

  • Fake news is frequently found in tabloid media and online. Therefore, only read news from reliable sources to ensure stories’ authenticity. Check news from other sources against more trusted outlets; if more trusted outlets are not reporting the same thing, the news is not yet confirmed.
  • Trusted friends also disseminate fake news, these can sometimes be the so-called educated ones. As such, always verify.
  • Accept only information that practically solves the issues in question.
  • Avoid information that does not come from a proven source.

To avoid the trap of COVID-19 untrusted sources, information should be sought from the following or similar sites:

For a more complete list of resources please see the Planetary Health Alliance COVID-19 Resource Pack, or jump straight to Resources for Researchers and Resources for Public Health Professionals.

Factual, accurate and easy to understand information can spread more quickly than the disease itself, helping to protect people and keep individuals and communities safe. Communication is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19. You can find an in-depth Outbreak Communication Planning Guide from the WHO here.

risk communication is key during the COVID-19 outbreak